What is an Ultramarathon?

Whenever I tell someone I’m attempting to run an ultramarathon naturally a couple of questions come up. As I’m a novice and a student of the sport itself I thought I would compile the answers to the questions I’ve been asking as well as the one’s friends and family have been asking as well.

What is an Ultrarunner?

An ultrarunner is someone who runs ultramarathons. An ultramarathon is any footrace longer than a traditional marathon (26.2miles / 42.19kilometres)

Within the sport of ultrarunning, there are some subjective definitions of what truly defines an ultramarathon. Some agreeing with the above definition, others only recognizing distances over 50 miles qualifying as an ultramarathon. In the end, they both are correct.

How Long Does It Take To Run an Ultramarathon?

Because fitness levels and courses can be so varied the fastest course times and those in the middle will have quite a range. All races will have cutoff times however meaning they will stop you at an aid station if you fail to meet that set cutoff time.

Below are some general ranges that can be expected with the most popular distances;

  • 50 KM: 4 – 11 hours
  • 100 KM: 11 – 21 hours
  • 100 Mile: 22 – 32 hours
  • 200 Mile: 49 – 100 hours

What Was The First Ultramarathon?

The first ultramarathon is told to us through legend. In 490 B.C. the Athenian Pheidippides, before the battle of Marathon, was sent to Sparta to seek help in the war between the Athenians and the Persians. According to legend, he arrived in Sparta two days later, some 250km.

Pheidippides was no ordinary citizen, he was what was called a “hemerodromos” or day-runner. The hemerodromos were messengers in the Athenian military tasked with delivering important information over incredibly long distances in the shortest time possible – an ancient ultrarunner.

Why Would You Want To Run An Ultramarathon?

This is at the heart of what this site is about. It’s different for everyone however I believe there may be a common thread among ultrarunners. An Ultramarathon is a tool for which a person can test themselves. Test themselves physically as well as mentally. Having a large goal like an ultramarathon can be a catalyst to create change in oneself, to improve your health as well as get a deeper understanding of effort and endurance.

How Do You Train For An Ultramarathon?

Training to become an ultrarunner begins with creating a base of running strength. Your body needs to be able to handle the kind of distance and time you will be running. This doesn’t mean you will be running at race distances or times in your training though. Some people complete over 50km ultramarathons without running over a marathon distance (26.2 miles) in their training.

Components of training are as follows;

Running Base: This is the majority of your effort, where you’re combining short to medium distance runs with longer duration efforts to get your muscles and tendons used to the impact and fatigue of running.

Speed Work: After building up your running (aerobic base) it’s important to push your body a little faster to try an increase your base (what I call engine). This could be the last 10-30 minutes of a long-distance effort where you’re comfortably breathing in from your nose, you speed up and increase your pace to where you’re now breathing more heavily.

Strength Training: It’s important to increase your strength so you can deliver more power with your stride as well as working on some deficiencies you may have to build a more resilient and structurally sound body.

There are much more components to training that break down the three listed above further, for example;

Trying to simulate the kind of fatigue you will have is using “back to backs”. This means on one day you will run for a distance or time and then the following day on fatigued legs you complete another training run. Essentially trying to train your body to adapt to the kind of fatigue you will feel on race day.

How Do You Carry Enough Food/Water?

There are aid-stations along the ultramarathon route. Each one has a staff of volunteers, food, and drinks ready for the runners. You can stop for as long as you want to eat, drink, and fill your pack with enough essentials to keep you going to the next aid station or beyond.

What Do You Eat?

Getting enough calories during an ultramarathon is essential. Beyond what is at an aid station which can serve all types of foods like fruits, pancakes, and quesadillas there is some specialized nutrition for long-distance runners.

  • Gels: simple sugary food that is meant to keep your glycogen stores up. Can include caffeine and/or electrolytes.
  • Salt Tabs: You lose a lot of sodium through sweat during long efforts which can cause cramping and fatigue. In order to replenish those stores quickly, salt tabs or capsules can be used.

Do You Need Special Equipment?

The nice thing about long-distance running is that the more equipment you have the heavier you become which after over 10+ hours of running is not ideal. The basics are;

  • Shoes
  • Running Vest/Pack
  • Water Flasks and/or Water Bladder

Depending on what kind of ultramarathon you are in (trail, road, track) your equipment can change. For example in a trail race, some mandatory equipment can be;

  • Small First Aid Kit
  • Heat Blanket
  • Headlamp
  • Whistle

In the end, it’s all about balancing what is required, what is needed and what is wanted.

What Are Some Popular Ultramarathons?

There are a lot of different races around the world. Some you only need to signup to compete, others you need to qualify for. The ones you need to qualify for are usually the most well known as the top athletes in the sport are competing in these. Below is a list of some of the most well-known ultramarathons in the world, just click on the name to learn more about them;

Western States 100

Takes place in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. A 100-mile endurance race that attracts some of the top in the sport. Competitors need to complete a qualifying ultramarathon and then are entered into a lottery for a spot to compete.

Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB)

Welcoming almost 10,000 competitors from over 100 countries the UTMB takes place in the beautiful resort area of Chamonix in France. A point system is used across qualifying races to ensure competitors are ready for this event.

Leadville 100

100 miles of Colorado rocky mountain running, this race takes you from elevations of 9,200 feet to over 12,500.

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